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Reviews of California Golden by Melanie Benjamin

California Golden

A Novel

by Melanie Benjamin

California Golden by Melanie Benjamin X
California Golden by Melanie Benjamin
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  • Published:
    Aug 2023, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Aditi Upadhyaya
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Book Summary

Two sisters navigate the thrilling, euphoric early days of California surf culture in this dazzling saga of ambition, sacrifice, and the tangled ties between mothers and daughters.

Southern California, 1960s: endless sunny days surfing in Malibu, followed by glittering neon nights at Whisky a Go Go. In an era when women are expected to be housewives, Carol Donnelly breaks the mold as a legendary female surfer struggling to compete in a male-dominated sport—and her daughters, Mindy and Ginger, bear the weight of Carol's unconventional lifestyle.

The Donnelly sisters grow up enduring their mother's absence—physically, when she's at the beach, and emotionally, the rare times she's at home. To escape questions about Carol's whereabouts—and to chase her elusive affection—they cut school to spend their days in the surf. From her first time on a board, Mindy is a natural, but Ginger, two years younger, feels out of place in the water.

As they grow up and their lives diverge, Mindy and Ginger's relationship ebbs and flows. Mindy finds herself swept up in celebrity, complete with beachside love affairs, parties at the Playboy Club, and a USO tour in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Ginger, desperate for a community of her own, is tugged into the dangerous counterculture of drugs and cults. But through it all, their sense of duty to each other survives, as the girls are forever connected by the emotional damage they carry from their unorthodox childhood.

A gripping, emotional story set at a time when mothers were expected to be Donna Reed, not Gidget, California Golden is an unforgettable novel about three women living in a society that was shifting as tempestuously as the breaking waves.


The surf giveth, and the surf taketh away—thus said the Surf God every morning, noon, and night in his church, which was the universe, the planet, California, the beach, the waves.

On this holy day, the surf would most definitely giveth.

The sand was cool and soft as sugar between her toes, the California sun tolerable, not blasting, because it was February. Yet the day was warm enough that the girls in their vibrant bikinis, and the guys in their board shorts, weren't covered in goose pimples as they danced to the wailing electric guitars of Dick Dale and His Del-Tones—twisting, shimmying, hand jiving. One girl's bikini was covered in long fringe that seemed to pulse with a life of its own as she gyrated so fiercely it was a wonder she didn't snap her pelvis.

Mindy laughed at the sight, then turned to do a groovy little two-step with one of the hunky boys who'd gravitated into her orbit, for today she was the sun itself, radiating joy and contentment. She danced a ...

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Benjamin's writing is dynamic and full of life. When she describes the sea's effect on Carol and Mindy, the reader can perfectly envision them getting on their surfboards and riding a wave. The mother and daughter's passion for the sport exudes from the book, and it shapes their personalities and choices. Despite its darker themes and events, California Golden will leave readers feeling hopeful. It offers realistic and multifaceted depictions of complicated parent-child and sibling relationships. Benjamin shows us that motherhood and sisterhood are emotionally complex, and especially difficult in a world where women are taught to think about their relationships with men first and with themselves and other women second...continued

Full Review Members Only (613 words)

(Reviewed by Aditi Upadhyaya).

Media Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
Melanie Benjamin pairs the surf culture of the Beach Boys with the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll of Daisy Jones & the Six... . Benjamin's novel is a portrait of three women beset by shifting cultural tides and a shimmering rendering of the promises and heartbreak of Southern California.

Los Angeles Times
If you're looking for a meticulously detailed breakdown of surf culture, look no further than Melanie Benjamin's new novel ... [a book] teeming with sand, sun, water, hot-pink bikinis and hamburger stands... . California Golden plants its feet firmly on the board and rides a powerful wave of nostalgia, eyes focused on the opportunities and dangers ahead.

With the charm and nostalgia of Beth Harbison's Confessions of the Other Sister and Amy Mason Doan's Lady Sunshine, Benjamin's novel also shows what the sun-kissed highlight reels so often missed.

Kirkus Reviews
You can practically hear The Beach Boys singing 'California Girls' in this novel about surfer sisters Mindy and Ginger Donnelly and their mother, Carol, a world-class athlete and terrible mom. Fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid's Malibu Rising will enjoy this story, which shares some of same locales, but the dysfunctional family at its center is one of a kind ... This sun-soaked novel is wonderfully awash in the music, television, and fashion of the '60s as well as the counterculture movement.

Publishers Weekly
These women can hang 10, but the novel doesn't quite hang together.

Author Blurb Beatriz Williams, author of A Hundred Summers
Benjamin vividly evokes the squalor and splendor of California surfing culture in this richly-textured novel that explores sisterhood, motherhood, ambition and friendship, with characters who rise alive from the page. It's rare to find such raw, honest sympathy for human beings and their capacity for mistakes and redemption. California Golden is a breath of bracing salt air.

Author Blurb Elyssa Friedland, author of The Most Likely Club
A gripping story about the power of family ties set in the edgy California surf culture and the glamorous and sometimes dangerous world of Hollywood celebrity, California Golden takes readers on an emotional, page-turning ride.

Author Blurb Rachel Hanna, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Beach House
Melanie Benjamin does a superb job of showing the complicated relationships that happen in so many families. Her ability to describe the scenery of the California surf scene is unmatched. This is the perfect story for readers who want to get lost in an emotional novel about breaking barriers and being a family.

Author Blurb Shelby Van Pelt, author of Remarkably Bright Creatures
California Golden left me breathless. Against the shimmering backdrop of California's burgeoning surf culture, Melanie Benjamin explores the bonds of sisterhood and motherhood in an era where society, and its expectations of women, are ever changing. The Donnelly women, perfect in their imperfections, will stay with you long after the last page.

Reader Reviews

Roshni Aprem

California Girls
On the glorious beaches of Southern California and Hawaii, the surf is up in this 1960s-era tale about mothers and daughters. You can practically hear The Beach Boys singing “California Girls” in this novel about surfer sisters Mindy and Ginger ...   Read More
Divya Ann Mathew

California Golden - A Riveting Surf Saga of Family and Freedom
Melanie Benjamin's "California Golden" takes readers on a captivating journey through the sun-soaked landscapes of Southern California in the 1960s, where the thrilling emergence of surf culture intertwines with the complex dynamics of a family ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

American Entertainers Visiting the Vietnam Warfront

Bob Hope On the Road to Vietnam album coverIn California Golden, Mindy has a transformative experience touring Vietnam during the war that makes her question her chosen career in show business. The Vietnam War was a transformative experience for America in the 1960s, impacting virtually everyone in some way. While the involvement of the United States in Vietnam was a profoundly polarizing topic, many entertainers opted to express solidarity with the troops by performing at military bases.

One of the most iconic entertainers who toured Vietnam was legendary comedian Bob Hope. Hope went on nine tours in Vietnam through the United Service Organizations (USO), often keeping troops company in dangerous areas. His shows usually included a combination of comedic acts, music ...

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